A lot of people love anime… this article isn’t for them. No, it’s specifically for those people in your life who claim to have no interest in anime as a genre. But the thing is, anime isn’t really a genre: It’s an entire medium, full of many genres and specific styles.
I’ve loved anime and manga most of my life, and I’ve had plenty of friends and partners who just weren’t into it. It’s for this (unhappy and unfulfilled, I imagine) crowd that I’ve compiled this list of anime that should appeal to a wider swathe of folks than just the grizzled, Pocky-scarred vets of Otakon ‘97.
My studies have shown that a good gateway anime is both impressive to behold and culturally accessible to the uninitiated. Series like FLCL, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Madoka Magica are masterpieces, but appreciating them relies heavily on familiarity with the tropes of the Japanese genres they subvert and pay homage to. That can be a pretty hard sell for newcomers. And to be real, a lot of folks are just tired of you screaming that they need to watch Cowboy Bebop. They get it, it’s good (I mean, yeah it is).
I also try to tailor my picks to their personal interests and keep in mind what shows or movies they might already like. So while we are all stuck inside, here are some anime series that you can (maybe, hopefully) binge-watch with your (kicking, screaming) normie friends.
Psycho-Pass takes place in a dystopic future Japan where a program known as the Sibyl System functions as the country’s judicial system, regularly scanning the mental state of all citizens and quantitatively measuring the likelihood of them committing a crime. If someone’s “Crime Coefficient” shoots above the system’s accepted value they get branded as a latent criminal (regardless of if they’ve done anything) open to arrest or extermination by members of The Crime Investigation Department of the Public Safety Bureau.
The series follows rookie CID Inspector Akane Tsunemori and her enforcer (an investigator who is themself a latent criminal) Shinya Kogami as they dive into the criminal psyche and uncover the secret forces that drive the broken justice system they serve. Also, there are a lot of serial killers. Like, a lot.
Serving as Production I.G’s spiritual successor to Ghost in the Shell, Psycho-Pass is one of the best anime series of the last decade. The pilot does an exceptional job at establishing its world’s core concepts and terminology while still offering the audience compelling drama and characters with distinct point-of-view. In a world where moral grays are not recognized and mental health is nothing but a statistic, the protagonists frequently face ethically compromising situations.
Psycho-Pass’ cast have vibrant personalities and strong ideologies which help to brighten a thriller that can at times be a bit unrelenting in its darkness and carnage (the CID’s special guns may make criminals explode just a smidge). Underneath all the cyberpunk trappings and gorey splatter, Psycho-Pass is a noir drama looking at a mangled criminal justice system and the many ways society fails at treating mental health.
For fans of: Criminal Minds, True Detective, Minority Report, the occasional exploding creep
Available on: Hulu
While on a business trip, Rokuro Okajima, a Japanese office worker, is kidnapped by a woman named Revy, a hyper-aggressive, dual pistol-toting mercenary and modern-day pirate working for the Lagoon Trading Company. When his employer cuts him loose and sends a hit squad after him as well as the kidnappers, Rock finds his loyalties shifting and soon enough becomes a full-fledged member of the Lagoon Company, based in the seedy Thai port town of Roanapur.
Full of morally dubious characters and shoot ‘em up violence, Black Lagoon plays like many classic American and Hong Kong action films. The writing manages to be organic, rowdy, and sharp with more than a few surprising moments of depth and introspection. Where it differs from those films that influence it is that when Rock joins the Lagoon crew, he’s never made out to be an action star. The guy can’t even fight, but he clearly grows as a character and an outlaw as he works with Revy and further embeds himself in a world of lovable scumbags.
For fans of: Quentin Tarantino, John Wick, The Sopranos, watching pirates shoot nazis
Available on: Hulu
Yes, Beastars is that horny furry anime you may have spotted while scrolling through Netflix, but it’s also so much more. In Beastars, anthropomorphic animals stand-in for human beings and have built a society where carnivores and herbivores live together in harmony. But when a carnivore at the prestigious Cherryton Academy devours a fellow student (this world’s greatest taboo), tensions between carnivores and herbivores begin to escalate.
Legoshi is a gray wolf and a friend of the deceased herbivore, whose submissive personality finds him at odds with the expectations put on him as a meat eater. He soon becomes horrified at what his own nature may contain when he falls for a small white rabbit named Haru, whom he had nearly killed in a suddenwild manifestation of latent instincts. As he and Haru get to know each other, Legoshi’s world is thrown into uncertainty. Are his feelings for Haru romantic or something far more carnal and savage? Beyond that, can love between carnivores and herbivores ever be viable?
To put it in the clearest possible terms, Beastars is Zootopia, but if Zootopia fucked and read a lot of books on moral philosophy. Under the characters’ fur and feathers are real emotions fueling the narrative and presenting valuable ideas that relate to us as people. The dynamics between carnivores and herbivores serve as a means to explore how we relate to shame, sexuality, and power. The way the saucy furry drama conveys all the discomfort and realities that come with desire makes Beastars a surprisingly fresh coming-of-age story, and one of the most original new anime to come out this year.
For fans of: Riverdale, Gossip Girl, copious homoerotic subtext
Available on: Netflix
From the same creator of Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo follows Mugen, a chaotic violence-loving vagabond, and Jin, a stoic wandering samurai, as they journey with a girl named Fuu on her quest to find a mysterious “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” What differentiates Champloo from a typical samurai story are the heavy strokes of anachronistic flair with which it paints its narrative. The show has an iconic style that integrates elements of modern hip-hop culture into a 17th century tale, with stuff like slang, breakdancing, and tagging seamlessly incorporated into its world.
Hip-hop music itself makes up the show’s entire score, with a spectacular soundtrack by late, great producer and lo-fi hip-hop pioneer Nujabes backing the wholly kinetic, one-of-a-kind fight scenes. And though the series emphasizes style, it doesn’t lack in substance, frequently weaving themes of xenophobia, imperialism, and cultural grief throughout its journey. While it often live in the shadow of its landmark predecessor Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo is a story all its own managing a masterful balance of both riveting period drama and joyously anachronistic misadventures.
For fans of: Hip-hop, watching stuff that’s truly unique
Available on: Hulu
Nana O. is a headstrong punk vocalist moving to Tokyo to establish herself in the music industry. Nana K. (who goes by the nickname Hachi) is an anxious, boy-crazy mess moving to Tokyo for love. These two very different women share nothing but a name in common until they meet by chance on a train ride, leading them to become roommates and eventually best friends. As their two lives become intertwined, each woman sees things in the other they want for themselves, with Nana wishing she could more easily swallow her pride and accept love into her life and Hachi admiring the way Nana has her own ambitions and doesn’t look for happiness in others.
Nana is rare among anime romance stories for focusing on the love lives of adults rather than highschoolers. The show’s drama is mature and the emotions of each character feel fully realized and painfully relatable. While the music careers of Nana O. and her band Blast take center stage for much of the series, Nana is a story first and foremost about relationships, particularly friendship. The show’s many love triangles and band rivalries do make for soapy drama, but the heart of the series is the strong, realistic bond between these women and how they support each other through all the chaos that comes with following their dreams.
For fans of: Insecure, Gilmore Girls, the non-action parts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yearning
Available on: YouTube
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
As children, prodigious alchemists Edward and Alphonse Elric committed the ultimate alchemical taboo by trying to bring their mother back from the dead. The brothers paid a steep price for it, with Edward losing his right arm and left leg while Al was reduced to a disembodied soul Ed had to bond to a suit of armor. Now, Edward is employed as an alchemist of the state and the Elric brothers travel the world in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, in hopes it can restore their bodies.
Fullmetal Alchemist is one of those series that has always been very popular among anime fans, and the reason for that is simply that it’s incredible. It’s an epic full of more characters than I can easily count, but still feels remarkably tight and easily keeps you interested in each character’s current thread. I’m currently rewatching Brotherhood while I introduce my girlfriend to it (unlike me, she is not a Woman of Weeb Experience), and as I’m reacquainting myself with its multitudinous cast spread out among its many locales, I can only think, “Wow, this must be what Game of Thrones was trying to do.”
Fullmetal Alchemist’s story feels both mature and approachable without attempting to be too gritty. The heartbreaking story and textured characters make for a tearjerker of a show that can hit you with so much pathos it knocks you on your ass, but much like the Elric brothers, the series’ most defining characteristic is hope.
For fans of: Game of Thrones, Avatar: The Last Airbender, just absolutely crying your brains out
Available on: Netflix and Hulu
Tsukiko Sagi is a character designer responsible for creating massively popular cartoon mascot Maromi and is under immense pressure to come up with her next great character, when suddenly she is attacked on her way home one night. Though the police think she’s lying, soon a string of seemingly random assaults are occurring all around town. The assailant? An elementary school student wearing inline skates and carrying a golden baseball bat who seems to only attack people who are in moments of crisis. The public dubs him “Lil Slugger” and becomes fascinated with his crimes. But who or what is Lil Slugger? And why does he do what he does?
It’s hard to describe Paranoia Agent. The only television series by the late Satoshi Kon, a filmmaker whose work has been cribbed by Hollywood for years now (Inception and Black Swan respectively owe a lot to Paprika and Perfect Blue), Paranoia Agent utilizes Kon’s signature mind-warping visual style to obscure the line between reality and hysteria. Kon created the series as a means to explore multiple themes that seemed ill-suited for a film, and thus the show functions as a pseudo-anthology series looking at a society captivated by anxiety and delirium, with every episode following a different person in crisis. Overall, Paranoia Agent is an anime unlike any other and a wildly surreal experience unto itself.
For fans of: Twin Peaks, Black Mirror, Maniac, doubting your own reality
Available on: Funimation
When Dr. Kenzo Tenma, an unparalleled Japanese surgeon living in Germany, becomes fed up with the bias and politics of his hospital and re-embraces his hippocratic oath, he goes against his superiors to save the life of a young boy instead of an influential politician and quickly finds his career in jeopardy. Years later, he becomes reacquainted with the boy he saved, Johan Liebert, only to find himself staring down a cold emotionless serial killer only known as “the monster.” Is Dr. Tenma willing to go against everything he stands for and take a life in order to stop the madness he feels responsible for?
Much has been written here at Kotaku about the greatness of Monster, a masterful shot-for-shot adaptation of Naoki Urasawa’s manga of the same name. For me, my love of the series spurred by the way it reminded me of NBC’s Hannibal, another ruthless killer who functions less as a person and more as an embodiment of the devil himself. The show is one long, slow burn as we learn more about Johan’s past, what he’s after, and what lengths Dr. Tenma is willing to go to stop him. Beyond all this, one of the most compelling reasons for watching Monster is it lacks any of the tropes typical to modern anime. Naoki Urasawa’s Monster is, simply put, a masterfully crafted and gripping psychological thriller that just happens to be animated.
For fans of: Hannibal, creepy boys
Available on: YouTube
What about you? What series (of the non-Bebop variety) have you used to finally win people in your life over to watching anime?
Chingy Nea is a writer, comedian, and critically acclaimed ex-girlfriend based out of Oakland and Los Angeles.